Disclaimer: I own only the plot, and the characters not seen in the TV show. Ryo was created by Takeru-san

A/N: Well its finally finished, and I would like to say that I put a lot of work and thought into the series and this chapter, trying to make it as sad, happy, and beautiful as possible, and I hope ya'll enjoy it. And who knows, maybe you'll be in a bookstore many years in the future, and see a book on the shelf that seems oddly familiar. This chapter is dedicated to everyone who has eagerly awaited it for the past six months.


The medical riders were bringing back more wounded every minute, dragging them from the front line on crude sleds that rattled and bounced along the ground. Jyou desperately wanted to help them all, but there was not nearly enough time.

Eight seconds to decide that this one had no chance. Three minutes to patch that one up just enough to keep him alive until one of the assistants could get to him. One second to push his glasses back up on his nose, three to blink away the sweat running into his eyes. One minute-thirty seconds to put a clamp on a severed artery. Fifteen seconds to look up and make sure none of his aides were showing signs of breaking under the stress. Five more to check on Sora and Kari, two of those spent hoarsely yelling at Kari to keep her helmet on. Jesus Christ, why weren't the guards keeping a better eye on them?

If Jyou had not been so afraid, he would have been terrified. Fear was a gift to him. It made him act quicker, think clearer. It steadied his hand and focused his vision. As long as he could keep the reigns on it, fear was one of the few things working for him. But his hold on it was so fragile…

"Jyou! Sora!" The words came in a helpless, horrified scream that shot through Jyou and pushed his heart up into his throat.

He turned, and saw Kari doubled up on the ground, the helmet he had just yelled at her to keep on teetered on its side next to her face. Her eyes were suddenly glassy with a horrible mixture of anguish and terror. And her mouth was open wide, like she was trying to scream again but had no breath to do it. Then her face twisted up in pain and she started to vomit blood.

All Jyou's thoughts and sense were stolen from him as he rushed to help her. Sora was there an instant before he was, her eyes sparkling with frightened tears. She tentatively grabbed Kari by the shoulders, afraid that it would hurt her to do anything else. Then she turned her eyes to Jyou and silently pleaded with him to do something.

She need not have bothered. Kari was as precious to Jyou as a sister. He would do anything for her, if he just knew what it was he needed to do.

"Hikari!" He shouted "Kari, tell me what's wrong!" There were no visible signs of any wounds. He automatically checked her pulse; her heart was beating furiously, and it almost seemed like there was something wrong with the rhythm, like a stutter-step somewhere in the beat. "Kari, tell me what you feel!"

She opened and closed her mouth like she was trying to talk, but she could not get any words out. More blood trickled down the sides of her mouth, and Sora leaned over and did her best to wipe it away.

Jyou could feel himself start to tremble as he slid a hand under Kari's chain mail and the thin cotton shirt beneath it. Her abdomen was firm without being rigid, but her skin was blazing hot despite the chill in the air. He did not want to take off her mail with the battle so close, but he might not have any other choice in a few moments.

"Sora, get a damp rag and wipe her face and neck, you have to keep her cool."

The young queen wordlessly ripped off one of her shirtsleeves, and doused it with water from the skin tied around her waist. "Come on, sweetheart." She whispered to Kari as she cradled the younger woman's head in her lap and began to mop it with the wet cloth. "Tell us what's wrong."

Kari continued to open and close her mouth as she tried to form words. She clenched her eyes shut so tightly that it squeezed out tears. Then her body was suddenly racked with coughs, clearing the blood from her throat.

"It's TK…" She whispered to them hoarsely, tears trailing down her dirty cheeks. "Please, it's TK…"


Tai's world had shrunk to two distant points; the Northern armies pouring over the mountains, their low, threatening chants seeming to rise from the depths of the Earth. And himself kneeling in the mud, fire ripping through his side and his head, as TK lay bleeding, dying in his arms. Everything in between was meaningless noise and darkness.

But gradually the world began to grow and lighten. And Tai became aware of the vaunted Green Knight lying on the ground close by, reduced to a sobbing wreck. The battle was still raging on many parts of the field, but men on both sides had begun to notice the dark hordes arrayed in the mountains. Though few of them had yet grasped what it meant.

Tai knew, and if his aide had not been dead, he would have had the young soldier sound the general retreat. But the soldier was dead, and TK was dying. Tai's vision and thoughts were suddenly hazy. But he managed to hold the young man in his arms and push himself slowly to his feet, ignoring the hot spurt of blood that streamed down his leg. He turned his body towards the Kamiyian lines, and started to walk toward them, trying with all his strength not to fall over.

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed him by the shoulders, and instinctively he twisted away. But the hands hung on, and Tai thought he heard Cody's voice coming from far away.

"Tai!" The hands shook him. "For God's sake, Tai, look at me!"

Tai blinked and then Cody was right there in front of him. The young monk's face was bloodied and smudged, and a sharp gash ran down his left cheek. He did not seem to be hurt badly, but his eyes were full of pain.

"Cody…" Tai said in a slur. "Cody… TK's hurt."

"You're both hurt." Cody answered him, his voice cracking. He turned and yelled to someone behind Tai, and a few seconds later Lucas, and some of the surviving Takaishian warriors had formed a protective circle around them.

Tai did not have the strength to disagree as Cody and another soldier took TK from his arms and set him in front of Lucas on the saddle. Then someone else picked him up by his shoulders, and before he could fully understand what was going on, he found himself sitting on a horse in front of Cody, the young monk's arms wrapped tightly around his waist. His body suddenly felt heavy and light at the same time, like sinking down into the sea, and sharp flashes of light streaked through his vision. He was so unbelievably tired, and he hurt so much. It would be okay, he told himself, if he just closed his eyes for a second.

His head rolled back against Cody's chest.


Tai was in shock; Cody only had to look into his friend's eyes to see that. There was an ugly wound in his side, and his hair was so matted with blood and grime that he could not see the wound that had to be there. It was amazing that Tai had the strength to stand, let alone hold TK in his arms. Oh God, TK. Cody's heart cried out in sorrow just to look at him. There was a mangled hole the size of a fist in his gut, and blood was smeared all over his face. It bubbled from his mouth with every weak breath. Cody desperately tired not to listen to the hurtful little voice in his heart that told him his best friend was already dead.

Out of the corner of his eye, Cody saw movement on the ground. He turned his head, and immediately all his sorrow pooled together with rage. The Green Knight was still there, and he resembled TK so closely it was sickening. He had probably killed TK, maybe killed Tai, and now he was crying. He had no right to cry, Cody thought. He had no right to look like brave, noble TK. And he had no goddamn right to live another second.

Cody moved his horse next to the Knight and lifted his mace. He paused for a second, and then brought it down in a vengeful crash. But he did not feel the wet crush of the Knight's skull that he expected. Instead, quaking vibrations tore through his arm, as a sword suddenly appeared to block the blow. In the flash of a second his eyes took in the sword's owner. A female warrior with bold lavender hair streaming down her back, she was on foot, and dressed in Tachikawan armor.

Instinctively, Cody shifted himself to face the new foe, turning his horse to better keep Tai out of harm's way. He quickly brought his mace up and began to rain down blows against his adversary, intent on battering her into submission. Overwhelming rage fueled his strength.

The female was not alone. Other Tachikawans, all but a few on foot, rushed forward to protect the Green Knight as he wept uncaringly on the ground.

The Takaishians bared their swords and moved to meet them. Their vision burned crimson, they wanted blood for their prince. Only Lucas held back, clutching TK's still form to him tightly, and looking hesitantly back towards the Kamiyian lines. He knew with dread certainty that his friend could not afford to wait. He clenched his teeth and kicked his horse into a furious gallop, racing for the white and red medical tent.

No one noticed. Cody's eyes were beginning to sting with angry tears as he continued his maddened assault on the female warrior. A few more seconds, he thought, just a few more seconds and then he would have her. He could feel her breaking…


The voice was made of sorrow and tears, and it cut deeper than any sword. To their own amazement, the combatants stopped and lowered their weapons. It was as if the voice, so sad and desperate, had just sapped away all of their rage.

"Can't any of you see what's going on?" Jun screamed again in the same crying voice. "Can't you see that we've all been had?"

She had been crying so long that she no longer felt any reason to be ashamed of her tears. They shimmered like prisms as they trailed through the blood and grime on her cheeks.

"Look up there!" She ordered, pointing to the Northern army moving like black ants down the mountain pass. "Do you see now? Do you understand? We've been trapped! We've been lead to this god-forsaken country so they can destroy us! And you're saving them the trouble by killing each other!"

She glared hatefully at all of them. "Fools…" She whispered under her breath. She limped to Matt's side and griped him underneath his arms, ready to pull him to his feet. His weeping had stopped, replaced by a numbness that covered him like a thin sheen of ice.

Cody's hands shook as he looked at her. Something inside him softly broke apart, like a hollow tree crumbling to dust. He turned and looked out over the battlefield, taking in the dead strewn about in the mud, already starting to rot. The proud standards lying tattered and faded underneath those that carried them. It was just mud and death, nothing else.

"Sound the retreat." He ordered softly. "Form up around the camp."

One of the soldiers raised a horn to his lips and blew the long, mournful note.

Cody took as tight a hold around Tai as he dared, and then galloped for the medical tent. He felt cold inside, hopeless.

Jun more than felt it, she knew it as fact. There was no hope. They were all going to die, and the only reason to keep fighting was because there was nothing else to do.

"Sound a retreat." She told Miyako. "But make it towards the Kamiyian lines, we're all in this together now."

"What about our own camp?" Miyako asked, trying not to sound as scared and confused as she really was. "Our people still back there?"

Jun shook her head. "Signal for them to grab whatever they can carry and make a run for it. But we can't afford to wait for them. The second those beasts decide to stop chanting and charge, the whole field will be overrun."

She bent down and tried to pull Matt to his feet, but he shrugged away from her and curled his arms around his knees. "I killed them." He whimpered in a hoarse voice. "I killed them, just leave me here."

Jun did not know if he was somehow talking about Mimi, or the Kamiyian Takeru, or any of the numerous men he had killed that day. And she did not have the time or patience to care. "Get to your feet!" She screamed at him, hurt and grief flooding her voice. "You're not doing this Matt! I'm not going to let you curl up and die like this!"

She strained her arms and legs and pulled him up to his knees, and then with another great effort to his feet. He just closed his eyes and let her to do as she wanted. All his worst thoughts and nightmares had come true. He had become them.

Jun pulled his arm across her shoulders, suddenly feeling very angry with him, angry with everything. She blinked away the hot tears stinging her eyes and saw for the first time that rain was falling all around them. She had already been so drenched in sweat and blood that she had not noticed the raindrops pelting her.

"Miyako, give me a hand with Matt." She said sharply. "If he's going to act like a child, we're going to treat him like one."

Miyako nodded and took a hold of his other arm. She glanced around herself anxiously, feeling like she was forgetting something. Then a wave of dread washed over her and she realized what it was.

"Jun." She gasped. "Where's Izzy?"

Jun's eyes widened as a burst of fear shot up through her chest, momentarily flaring brighter than all the other fears swirling beneath it. She turned and swept her eyes over the battlefield, trying to find Izzy in the host of warriors trooping in confusion over their fallen comrades. It was pointless to search for him now, they would just have to make it to the Kamiyian lines and hope that he was in a position to do the same.

"Sound the retreat again." Jun said, still staring across the battlefield. "Make it clear where we're retreating to."

Miyako brought the curved horn to her lips and blew the call, and if most of the Tachikawan soldiers did not understand the orders, they at least obeyed them, moving quickly but cautiously towards the regrouping lines of their former enemies. The Tachikawan support personal camped in the shadow of Rolen's castle hurriedly grabbed all they could hold and charged after them.

As if in response, the chants of the Northern hosts began to change in tone and pitch, going from a high, howling song to a chorused round of low barks and growls. Perhaps a quarter of the great army detached itself from the mass and began moving down the base mountains, crouching low to the earth and moving as easy as elks across the rocky terrain. They wore less armor than the others, and carried short stabbing spears and small, round shields instead of swords.

In her head, Jun quickly estimated the speed of the beasts against the distance to the Kamiyian lines, and she decided that they had better run.


Kari kept trying to get up. She cried and moaned that she had to get to TK. Sora cried along with her as she held the younger woman as tightly and gently as she could. Jyou huddled over both of them, constantly checking Kari's pulse and temperature. Thankfully, the burning fever and bout of bloody vomiting had passed just as suddenly as they had come, but she had also become frighteningly weak, and was obviously in shock. Jyou had already sent attendants rushing off for blankets. Now all he could think to do was brush the wet, slick curls away from Kari's face, and wait in mounting dread for the tragedy he knew had to be galloping closer to him with every passing second. The hair on his neck stood on end, and he braced himself as best he could.

When he finally heard the mad pounding of the horse coming up behind him, he bent and whispered quickly in Sora's ear. "Keep her back, don't let her see." Then he pushed his glasses back on his nose, and made his heart as steely and logical as he could bear, trying to tell himself that he had no right to personal feelings with men dying all around him. But then he saw Lucas gently easing TK out of the saddle and into the waiting arms of the attendants who in turn lowered him to the ground, and all his cold reason blew away like dust in the wind.

One glance at the young prince's ghastly wound was enough to tell Jyou that it was some sort of meaningless miracle that he was still alive. If it had been anyone else, Jyou would have named him a 'no chance' without a second look. But this was not anyone else; this was TK, his brother in the misshapen family that had been forged in the dungeons and secret passages of a tyrant's castle.

"Is he? I-I mean, can you do something?" Lucas stammered, his youth suddenly showing in his scrunched up face and wavering voice.

Jyou gave an uncertain shake of his head as he probed the wound. The intestines were sliced open, maybe the liver… The iliac artery had to be severed for there to be this much blood… He probed a little deeper… Oh, Christ the renal artery too! And that meant at least one of the kidneys was almost certainly damaged!

Jyou suppressed a moan of anguish and disbelief. There was no possible way TK could still be alive, but his heart continued to beat, pumping more rich red blood out of the hole in his abdomen.

"Lucas." Jyou said as calmly as he could while he struggled to put a clamp on the iliac artery. "Go stand with Kari and Sora, make sure they're alright." He did not want the boy hovering over him. Lucas nodded deeply once and did as was ordered.

The drizzling rain began to fall harder, and Jyou called over two of the guards to stand over TK with their shields held out in a makeshift canopy. Far away, he thought he heard the sounds of a horn bellowing retreat, but he didn't have the heart to ask the guards if they had heard it too.

He worked fast, going mostly on touch alone. And it hurt to have to do this to TK, it always hurt to cut into somebody you cared about, to feel their hot blood pour over your hands. He could only just bear the pain as he finished clamping the arteries, and then sewed up the damaged organs in quick succession, and finally he sutured the arteries back together.

It was a feeble effort for the extent of the wound, but it was the best of Jyou's abilities under the conditions. TK was still breathing as the linen bandages were wrapped around his torso, but Jyou had no real hope that he would last much longer.

"Sora!" He hoarsely called over his shoulder as he finished tying off the bandages. "How's Kari?"

"She's blacked out." Sora answered shakily. "Her breathing's weak." She waited a moment before asking the question she already knew the answer to. "What about TK?"

Jyou did not respond for a long moment. "We should get them to their tent, keep them comfortable." He did not know what was happening to Kari, and he was too tired and heartsick to ask any questions that could not be answered.

He climbed to his feet, feeling his knees groan and wheeze as he did so. He motioned for the guards to gently pick TK up in their arms, but before they could move any further, the mournful sound of a horn in retreat floated up from the battlefield, and there was no doubting that it was real this time.

"Sora!" Jyou yelled again as he whipped around. "Take as many guards as you can find and go back to TK and Kari's tent, and for God's sake stay there!"

The young queen winced reflexively, but she nodded and would have gone, except that she caught sight of Cody galloping across the field, Tai's limp form in his arms. Her heart seemed to stop, and before her mind could even register the horrible inner scream resounding through her body, she suddenly found that she had fallen to her knees.

"Oh, dear God." She whispered. "Please no." Then she was on her feet, running to meet them before Cody even had a chance to reign in his horse. She held on to Tai's blood caked hand as Jyou carefully pulled him to the ground, and then she reached out and gently stroked his cheek, desperately wishing for him to open his beautiful brown eyes.

"We're about to sustain a charge." Cody told them as he wheeled his horse around to go back to the front line. "Make sure you keep back, and if looks like they're going to break through, get on a horse and don't stop for anything."

Jyou nodded him away as he pulled a wadded up bandage out of his pocket. "Here." He handed it out to Sora. "Hold it to his head." When he did not feel her take it, he jerked his head up to see her sitting in shock and brushing the hair away from Tai's eyes.

"Sora!" He barked, making her jump. "Hold the goddamn bandage to his head!"

"I'm sorry." She whispered as fresh tears swept down her cheeks. "I'm sorry." She took the bandage and pressed it against the wound.

"Hold it tight." Jyou told her as he looked back down at the wound in Tai's side. He thought he heard some sort of ugly singing or chanting in the distance and he whished he had asked Cody what the hell was going on.

"How-how is he?" Sora stammered, trying unsuccessfully to keep the tears out of her voice.

Jyou looked at her over the top of his glasses. "He's lost a lot of blood." There didn't seem to be any damage to the organs though, thank Christ. If he managed not to fuck up, Tai would probably make it.

Then Jyou heard the agonizing sound of horses screaming, followed by a hideous, feral roar. And as a dank emptiness seeped through his chest, he began to wonder if any of them would make it.


The beasts from the northern snows moved nimbly across the field, using the dead as stepping-stones in the mud. The ugly chorus of barks and growls moved down and back through their ranks. Their weapons twitched with pent up strength.

Did they feel afraid? Cody wondered as he rolled his mace around in his hand. He searched deep inside his own soul, and was surprised to find no fear, just an intense sadness that encompassed his entire being. His mount was being unreasonably skittish, pawing the ground and whining in fear. With a sigh, Cody slipped out of the saddle and smacked the horse on the backside, sending it galloping towards the rear. There was no point in making the poor animal face this.

The remainder of the joint Kamiyian and Ishidian force was strung out in a haggard line in front of their camp. The retreating Tachikawans were allowed to pass unmolested, and those who could fight joined the line without debate. There was no more doubt in anyone's mind of where the true danger lay. There were even some of Rolen's former soldiers scattered here and there through the line, standing beside those who had been their enemies not even an hour before.

Cody looked to his right, and saw that the two female Tachikawans had come through the ranks to stand beside him.

"Brother Cody of Hida." He said solemnly, nodding in salute.

"Miyako of Inoue." The one with lavender hair answered with a wry smile. "Charmed."

The other one, the one with the tears of strength, regarded him carefully; her intense brown eyes framed by the raindrops trailing down her face. "Jun of Motomiya." She said softly. "Princess Jun of Motomiya."

Cody's heart panged him for a moment, an old scar that still felt like a fresh wound. "Your brother was a good man." He said.

"He was the best." Jun agreed. And then they both turned to meet the enemy.

When the creatures came close enough for Cody to make out their mangy, matted fur and hissing mouths filled with long, sharp teeth, they came to a stop, and with booming howls hurled their spears at the defenders.

Cody ducked behind his shield, bracing his shoulder against the jarring impacts. He heard the screaming of men and horses, and clawed feet racing towards him. He came up already swinging his mace across his body, and the first beast to reach the line was greeted by a blow that crushed the right side of its face, sending blood and pieces of bone flying through the rain. Before the body had even hit the ground, another creature leaped over it, landing on the shield that Cody had instinctively raised above his head. The creature was amazingly light, and for a second, Cody was almost mesmerized by its pale, feline eyes. Then the beast spat and tried to rake his face with its claws. A burst of fury erupted from Cody's throat in a rumbling growl; he swung his mace again and caved in the creature's skull. Its body rolled off the shield and crumpled to the ground like a wet rag doll.

Beside him, Jun fought with all the strength and ferocity of a cornered tiger. Her sword flashed like the lightning in the sky, and the beasts fell one by one at her feet. Davis was foremost in her mind; his face sparkled in her tears. She imagined him fighting beside her, his plumed helmet nodding proudly in the wind and rain. Sister and brother, standing together as they never had when he was alive. She had neither the desire nor strength to turn her head and dispel the illusion.

The fight was short. Perhaps ten minutes passed before a long, resounding howl echoed off the mountains. Immediately, the beasts halted their attack and went racing back to rejoin the rest of the Northern host. The defenders, bleeding and exhausted, could not believe their senses as the creatures barked and jumped in wild excitement as they retreated, seemingly not troubled in the slightest that their charge had been repulsed.

Cody stared after the creatures, as confused as everyone else. Then his eyes drifted to the nearest mountain peak, and he saw as small cluster of dark figures studying the scene below them. Everything was suddenly maddeningly clear in his mind. He ground his teeth together, and his hands shook with rage.

The beasts they had just fought were the equivalent of apprentices, children. They had been sent across the field to prove themselves in combat and test the mettle of the defenders at the same time. Now they were being called back to take their places among the true northern warriors, and wait for the coming battle. The dark armies suddenly seemed to melt into the gray rock, leaving only the resumed chanting to remind the defenders that they were still there. They were in no hurry to begin the slaughter; battle had to be savored, at least until the next morning.

The rain began to pour harder from the dark sky, and the surviving defenders limped back to the Kamiyian camp with their heads bowed low and their hearts empty.

Cody still stared out across the battlefield, seeking an outlet for his fury. He found it when a low whining reached his ears. His eyes darted to the source; one of the beasts was dragging itself through the mud far behind its comrades. Its legs were apparently too damaged for it to do anything but crawl.

Cody's eyes narrowed as ice-water seeped through his veins. He bent and picked up one of the short spears stuck in the ground, then went stalking after the slowly retreating beast. It seemed not to notice his approach until he planted his boot on the back of its neck, and with a rasping scream drove the spear through its spine. The creature's mouth gaped in an agonizing shriek, and it stretched an imploring hand out to the mountains. Cody wrenched and twisted the spear until he was sure the creature was firmly staked to the ground. Then he turned and left it to bleed and scream itself to death.

They may not know fear, he thought, but they know pain.


As the moon rose behind the clouds, the rain softened to a gentle weeping, staying only strong enough to soak through clothes to the bone, and keep the struggling fires from giving off any real warmth. The defenders huddled together around the depressed flames, their hopelessness reflected in the smoldering embers. The heartbreaking story of the brothers Ishida had become known shortly after the end of the beasts' charge, and it slowly made its way through the camp, told in awed and anguished whispers. It seemed proof that it was destiny that so many should meet their death so far from home, at the hands of monsters stolen from the darkest corner of a nightmare. Scouts had been sent out early in the night, and those who had returned had reported that the camp was surrounded by a number of the beasts. They were perched up in the trees, their eyes glowing green and yellow in the darkness.

The bodies of the dead that could be retrieved lay in silent rows at the very rear of the camp. Countless Tachikawans, Ishidians, and Kamiyians had fallen, among them, Lord Rordan of Adonin, trusted friend and ally of the royal family. Somewhere, around one of the fires, his spoiled son, Persig, was crying the tears that would make him a good and just man, if only he lived that long.

In a tent near the center of the camp, TK silently lay in the shadows between life and death. His eyes had not been open since he had fallen scared and confused into Tai's arms. Kari sat pale and weak beside him, holding his hand in her lap. She had regained consciousness an hour before, and had not spoken a word since. Every once in a while, he would cough, sending a thin line of blood dribbling down from the corner of his mouth, and she would wipe it away. Every once in a while, a new tear would roll down her cheek, sparkling like starlight, and she would let it be.

Cody knelt at the foot of the bed, sorrow and anger washing together in his heart. He threaded a tinkling rosary through his fingers and whispered hushed Latin over his closest friends in all the world.

Outside the tent, wrapped in a drenched cloak, Tai sat hunched over in a chair sunk into the mud. His bandaged wounds oozed blood, and he was burning up with fever. Guards had been posted outside his tent to make sure he did not hurt himself in his sickness, but he had begun to think he was going mad with the torturous illusions conjured up by his feverish mind. He had cut a hole in the back of the tent and dragged himself off to guard TK and Kari. Sora was searching for him frantically.

A little ways off, around one of the fires, Jun and Miayko sat with Izzy squished between them. He had been farther down the line during the beasts' charge, and other then a sharp gash on his cheek from one of their claws, he was unhurt. It had been a scarce moment of joy and relief when they found him. Both young women had wrapped their arms around him in a fierce hug, almost lifting him off the ground.

"I had a dream like this once." He had said, managing a weary smirk as he hugged them back. "Except we were in a huge bed, and there wasn't quite so much mud."

They would have slapped him, except they were both too happy to have him back.

Across the fire from them sat Ken, barely able to suppress a smile. The terrifying visions had stopped… no, not stopped… finished. There was no more uncertainty or doubt, only pure, unwavering knowledge. The past, present, and destined future lay spread out in his mind like an illuminated manuscript. He knew, for instance, that Princess Mimi was making her way towards the camp, guarded by unseen protectors. And she was accompanied by "King" Ryo. There was something odd about the boy; Ken's mental image of him seemed to flicker like a candle flame. There was chance in him, the only hope of changing what lay ahead. But Ken doubted anything would come of this, he could not see anything to tell him otherwise.

He sighed and glanced at those around them. Poor, brave fools, he thought. They would be dead soon, they all would. The Prince and Princess of Kamiyia would breathe their last before the next dawn, their unborn children dying with them. Their one fear gone, the dark hordes would sweep down from the mountains, killing everyone. The child of the Green Knight and the Tachikawan Princess would join its cousins in never knowing life outside the womb. The King and Queen of Kamiya would never even know that she had conceived. The self-exiled Motomiyian Princess and the Lady of Inoue would never even have the chance to conceive. And three months in the future, an uncared for orphan would be taken from the earth by a hellish fever. Thus, would the future saviors of the world die before ever having a chance to live, and darkness would reign forever.

Despite this, Ken felt no fear or sorrow, only tranquil quiet, because the visions had stopped, and he was at last left in peace.

Far from the weak light of the fire, Matt sat in the same spot he had been in since before the charge. He sat on the ground like a small child, his knees tucked underneath his chin and his arms wrapped around his legs. He did not feel the cold or the rain, he felt nothing. It hurt him too much to feel. Mimi was dead and he had killed Takeru. Everything that mattered, everything that made him want to feel, to live, was gone. Only pain was left. So he sat, covered by a fragile, icy numbness, staring off into the darkness.

But ice melts, and some wounds are too painful to ignore. A hurt, shallow light slowly returned to his eyes, and gradually they focused on the tent some yards in front of him, the place where he knew his brother lay. Even in the dark and rain, the green and gold of the tent seemed to shimmer in some hidden light. He saw the flap move, and Cody came out and stood for a few moments with his head in his hands, his shoulders heaving. Then the young monk went trudging with head bowed towards one of the fires.

Matt climbed slowly to his feet, feeling the pain crash through him once more. It felt like his heart had burst open, letting all the sorrow seep out like saltwater to wear him away from the inside. The armor of the Green Knight still weighed heavily on his body, and his arms felt sickeningly weak as he unclasped the gauntlets and breastplate, and let them fall to the ground to rust in the rain. He only had the will to take small, ginger steps, and years seemed to pass in the time it took him to reach the green and gold tent. He did not even notice the dark, hunched over form beside the opening, until he reached out to move aside the flap, and he was suddenly seized by the shoulders and weakly shoved backwards.

"You goddamn murderer!" Tai growled, planting himself in front of the tent. "Stay the hell away from them!"

The young king's eyes were wild with fever and fury. He shivered and swayed on his feet, his soiled cloak hanging off his shoulders like a mockery of royal robes. He was too weak to keep the point of his sword from sticking in the ground.

Matt blinked away the tears springing to life in the blue of his eyes. "I want to see my brother." He choked out.

"He's not your brother!" Tai screamed hoarsely, his own tears starting to shine. "He's my brother! You hear me! He's my brother! And I'm not going to let you anywhere near him!"

He tried to take an angry step forward, but his feet crumbled beneath him, and he fell across the hilt of his sword. The handle dug painfully into his stomach, forcing more blood out of the wound in his side. He could not find the strength to push himself up, but he refused to let himself fall.

"Tai!" Sora's frantic cry cut through the rain, making Matt jump despite himself. The young queen was wrapped in a gray, hooded cloak, and almost seemed to be made of mist as she ran to her husband's side. "I should have known, I should have known." She scolded herself mournfully, as she pulled Tai's arm across her shoulders and let him lean against her.

"I'm sorry, Sora." Tai whispered as he let his head rest against her neck, his voice suddenly soft as a child. He let the sword slip from his fingers as she took his hand in hers. His eyes fell half-closed as he blankly studied the raindrops running down her cloak.

"We have to get you out of the rain." She said worriedly. Then she glanced up, her grip on Tai tightening as she finally noticed the other person standing there.

Matt barely dared to breathe as her cherry colored eyes bore into him. Her cheeks were stained with tear tracks, and her auburn hair had been molded by the rain into countless tiny ringlets that fell around her face and down her shoulders.

Her gaze was narrow and hard, she wanted to hate him. He had hurt the three people she loved more than anything. She wanted to hate him because it felt like there was a dagger buried in her heart, and she had no way to pull it out. But her eyes started to brim over with fresh tears, and the only emotion she could muster against him was pity. So she glared at him for a final moment, trying to impart to him all the pain in her bleeding heart. Then she lowered her eyes, and carefully led her lover away.

Matt stared after them, tasting salt as tears trailed over the corner of his mouth. When their forms receded into darkness, he bent and picked up Tai's sword from its place in the limp grass. He saw his face reflected in the cold steel splattered with mud, and he imagined that his eyes had become the harsh swirling blue of a storm at sea, and his mouth had curled up in a starving wolf's grin. A racking sob tore from his mouth, and he clenched his eyes shut against the image. When, after long moments, he could bear to open them, he stood and reached out a shaking hand to move the tent flap aside.

Kari did not notice his entrance, just as she had not noticed when Cody left. She saw nothing but the shallow rise and fall of TK's chest as he struggled to breathe, his face flushed and drawn up in suffering. She held his hand and gently traced the calloused lines; she brought it up to her face and softly brushed it against her cheek, letting her tears run between his fingers. Her TK, her light, was dying, and it was killing her, draining away all her hope and strength. She was already so weak; soon she would die, her darling, precious baby with her. And no prophecy, no matter how grand or terrible, could change that now.

Despair swelled within her like a bottomless ocean. They had made it through so many storms… so many battles, and tears, and heartaches. But they would not make it through this one. And she wondered how she could have been so naive to ever believe she would be allowed to see his golden hair fade to gray, that the laughter of their children would ever ring through her heart, that their story would end with happily ever after…

A gust of chill air suddenly teased her face, pricking the hair on the back of her neck. She turned to where Matt stood, his eyes creased and wet as they trailed over the ugly scars on TK's shoulders and chest, lingering on the black S burnt into his arm.

A burst of shame and anger rippled through Kari, and she reached over and pulled the blanket covering her husband up to his chin. TK was so self- conscious of his scars, as if it were his fault people had tortured and abused him, just because they could never break him… Her vision blurred as she remembered a too perfect young man tied by ropes soaked in his own blood, his deep blue eyes glowing like fading stars as he mouthed 'I love you'.

"What do you want?" She asked Matt in a hoarse whisper. He looked so much like TK it almost broke what was left of her heart. His face was just a little harder, his eyes a trace lighter.

Matt's face twisted up in anguish. He could not take his eyes off the dirty, angelic face framed by messy blonde hair. "He's my brother…" He whispered in reverence and grief. "I used to dream about… I used to… I…" He couldn't get the words to come, they sounded so worthless and small.

"I'm sorry… He… He's my brother…"

Kari's mouth began to tremble, tears forcing their way out of her clenched brown eyes. She dropped her head into her hands and sobs wrenched through her frame. Why, she cried to herself. Why… Why… Why… a million times why…

"He fought it back." She whispered between the tears. "He was so afraid of the darkness, but he fought it back." She raised her head, sucking in a rasping breath as she stared imploringly at Matt.

"Why couldn't you?"

He slowly shook his head; he had no answer that he would dare to make her hear, no answer that he could live with. He closed his eyes and dropped the sword at her feet. Then he fell to his knees before her, and leaned forward to bare his neck.

A cold hand griped Kari's heart as she realized what he was doing, what he was asking. But even as her eyes burned from the constant flow of tears, she found herself staring down at the tongue of black flame on the back of his neck; the mark that had stolen everything from her. A spark of anger and hate began to grow inside her wounded heart, and she wondered if she possibly had enough strength left to lift the heavy sword, to wield it with enough power to cut through flesh and bone… But TK had that same mark on his neck. She had rubbed and kissed it more times than she could ever remember; it was a part of him. Her heart moaned, and the spark of hate and anger was drowned in the flood of grief and despair that consumed her. She turned away from Matt and the sword and reached out a hand to caress TK's cheek.

"Please." She whispered. "Just go, leave us alone."

Matt gasped and looked up at her. The candlelight flickered across her face and neck, looking like a porcelain angel who had lost her wings. Shame and self-loathing pooled in his gut and shivered down his spine. With a choking sob, he grabbed the sword and burst out of the tent, running blindly towards the trees. He was a tangle of half-formed thoughts and unfinished feelings. Why would she leave him alive? Had she no mercy? Didn't she see that he needed to die?

His feet slipped from beneath him and he tumbled through the mud. His arms quaked as he pushed himself to his knees, and he threw his head back and cried out to the sky; a heart-wrenching howl of loneliness and grief that echoed off the cloud-shrouded moon. He brought the sword to his neck, pressing it tight enough to draw blood. It will all be over in just a moment, he thought.

"MATT!" He imagined he heard Mimi's horrified voice beyond his closed eyelids. "Stop! What are you doing?"

It's okay Meems, he thought to the illusion. I'll be with you in just a moment. I love you.

But then the illusion was on him, pulling the sword away from his throat, and prying at his fingers until he dropped it. Then it was holding him, gently shaking him as it used Mimi's voice to whisper desperately in his ear. "Matt… Matt…"

He was afraid that if he opened his eyes the illusion would disappear, so he kept them closed as he hugged it tightly, marveling in the way its imaginary form felt so like the real Mimi. And by the time her weeping breaths and soft kisses had convinced him she was real, he no longer cared about what miracle could have delivered her, just that she was there in his arms.

"I thought you were dead." He whispered, running his fingers through her wet, tangled hair.

"I feel like I was." She answered with a crying laugh. The rain had thankfully washed away most of the filth from the sewer. But her body trembled from near exhaustion, and her face bore the bruises from the frantic escape down the tunnel. Her dress was soiled and torn, plastered to her body like a wilted flower.

"But, Matt…" She cupped her hands over his eyes and stared into them with a hurt, confused expression. "Why… What were you doing?"

His shoulders slumped against her, and he could not look in her eyes as he answered. "I killed him, Meems. Takeru… he… he was my brother and I killed him… He's dying."

"Oh, Matt…" Her heart broke for him. She pulled him tight against her, madly kissing his cheek and neck. She felt his shoulders trembling as he desperately tried to fight the tears. "I'm sorry… I'm so sorry." She held him as he cried.

A few feet away, Ryo stood momentarily forgotten. He shyly turned his head away from the private scene, and concentrated only on the shiver of rain running down his shoulders and arms to drip off his fingers. He felt guilty, and small, like a giant, black thing had rolled over the world, leaving cold and pain in its wake. Maybe, he could have stopped it, if only he had not been so conscious of his smallness. He knew that no one would blame him, just a poor little boy imprisoned and used by a greedy tyrant, but he blamed himself, and that was the worst of all.

"You're so cold." Matt said suddenly, pulling slightly away from Mimi to brush a wet lock of hair away from her cheek. He gently and easily picked her up in his arms, and then pushed himself to his feet. "We'll go sit by one of the fires."

She silently nodded her assent, and then reached out to wipe the warm tears from his eyes.

He began to carry her towards the nearest fire. And Ryo was content to follow behind them unnoticed, had Mimi's full presence of mind not returned to her.

"Wait! Ryo!" She half-yelled, half-whispered over Matt's shoulder, suddenly afraid that she had somehow managed to lose the boy in the darkness.

"I'm right here, Princess." He answered immediately, his voice coming from the opposite of the direction Mimi had been looking.

"Oh, thank God." Mimi sighed in relief. Then she habitually brushed a hand over her hair, and gave a thin but genuine smile. "Matt, this is Ryo. Ryo, Matt." She blushed slightly, feeling a little silly about being perched in Matt's arms, but there was no place she had ever felt as safe.

The young man and the boy exchanged solemn nods. And Ryo was suddenly filled with the hurtful feeling that for whoever he was, for whatever strength and courage he had, he was nothing but a weak, inferior version of the great warrior standing before him. His mind traveled back to a time not so far gone when old men had called him king. He had known somehow, that the rightful holder of that title was out there somewhere. And as he beheld the ocean of sadness in Matt's eyes, the strength radiating from his frame, and the tenderness with which he held his lover close, Ryo had trouble imagining another person who could possibly be more meant to be a king.

For his part, Matt saw only a cold, tired boy to go along with all the other cold, tired people all around him. "I'll take you over to the fire." He said. "I'm not sure… I'm not sure how much good it'll do, but it's better than nothing."

Mimi laced her arms around Matt's neck as he carried her, and they both listened to make sure that Ryo's exhausted footsteps stayed closely behind.

Matt had just begun to consciously think that he should take them to the fire with Jun, Miyako, and Izzy, when a chorus of excited shouts told him that he already had.

"Oh My God." Jun was the first to stand up and rush over to them, catching Mimi in a great hug just as she slid out of Matt's arms. "I was so scared… Oh Jesus, Mimi… I'm so sorry I made you go up to that goddamn castle."

Miyako was right on her heels. She tried to speak, but could not get her mouth to work. So for the first time that entire day, the female warrior began to cry, bawling as she threw her arms around her adopted sister.

Izzy was perhaps the most tired and hurt out of all of them, but he hobbled from the fire and joined with Matt in hugging the three young women between them. Quiet tears slipped from beneath his closed eyelids. "Thank God Thank God Thank God." He prayed under his breath.

None of them cared how she had escaped from Rolen's castle. They just cared about the fact that she was there, delivered back to them. And what did it matter if there were an army of beasts waiting in the darkness? They were together again, and that was enough for now. That was enough to hold on to.

Ken sat behind the shallow glow of the fire and watched them, his violet eyes curious and contemplative. It's like a page out of some epic tragedy, he thought to himself, a cynical grin playing on his lips. One family celebrates being reunited, while another is lying broken apart, and all of it happening in the face of soon and certain death. He wondered if the Abbot would have seen the irony in it, if he hadn't become so caught up in their hopeless struggle.

Speaking of the Abbot, and all his nasty little secrets…

Ken turned to where the old man stood beside the Lord Jyou, just at the point where the weak firelight could play about their legs, but lacked the strength to climb up their bodies.

It was the first time Jyou had not been among the sick and wounded since the beasts' charge, trying to keep them all alive through the night just so they could die in the morning. And he was standing on the last fumes of his strength. His breath came in haggard pants, and a feverish chill crept over his shoulders and neck. There was only a sharp ache in his chest where his heart should have been. He was spent in body, mind, and spirit, exhausted to the point that deep thought seemed almost impossible.

The Abbot kept a steadying hand on his shoulder as Jyou watched the rejoicing Tachikawans, slowly adjusting his mind to the knowledge that Princess Mimi was alive, and coaxing his weary thoughts to produce ideas as to what that could mean.

"Princess Mimi." He said finally, stepping into the light of the fire as the Tachikawans turned towards him. "I am glad to see you alive."

"Thank you." Mimi answered softly. "I have to say I am very glad as well." She carefully studied his face, thinking back to the mountain of files she had read. "I take it you are Lord Jyou of Kido."

"That's right." Jyou answered. "I'm… I'm… speaking… for the Kamiyian royal family."

The sorrowful tone of the words washed over everyone like a freezing wind. Even Mimi, who had no real idea of what had happened, suddenly found her mind forming pictures of grief and loss. She reached behind her and felt for Matt's hand.

Jyou nodded again and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "Princess… As you can probably see, we're all in pretty dire straights. Our only way out may be the way you took to get in. How… How did you manage to…" The words dried up on his tongue.

A song filled the air, not the harsh chanting of the beasts, but a soft hymn floating on the wind and rain like an oak leaf on a river, so faint they almost missed it. Jyou, Matt, Mimi, and the rest of the little group all strained their ears to hear over the patter of rain and the agitated crackling of the fire.

And the song came closer. The words were foreign, a language none of them had ever heard, a brutal, guttural language formed of steel and blood, and then left to wither and rot through the ages like grapes on the vine. But the music flowed through the words, wrapping them in beautiful sorrow. Together, they made a song of empires lost and honor gained, of heartache and healing, of light and dark, death and life; a song of wolves baying to the moon.

The last of the old Ishidian lords sang the sweet, sad song as they marched slowly through the camp, a few sputtering torches lighting their way. Most had been on opposite sides of the field that day, many had been at each others' throats for years, some for generations. But they stood together now, united under one standard.

Lord Artur led the procession, his voice rising proud and strong above the others, the last reminder of the great warrior he had once been. Woeful tears ran down his cragged cheeks and into his beard. His hands, crippled by age and disease, shook and cramped as they clutched the banner of the House of Ishida to his chest.

It was tattered and ripped, so soft with age that it threatened to fall apart in the rain. But the emblem was still bold as midnight; a black wolf prowling a field of forest green. At the height of the Ishidian darkness, the wolf's eyes had been a blood red. But now, they had been dyed a deep blue the color of a spring river, the color of hope.

"I-I think it's the ancient Ishidian dialect." The Abbot said, his attention still rapt by the solemn procession. "I've only seen it in books, never heard it spoken. But I would almost swear that they're singing to mourn their king."

Matt opened his mouth to say something, but no words would come out. So the group watched in silence as the procession found its way to the front of the green and gold tent, and on the chair that Tai had sunk into the mud, Artur laid the banner of the royal House of Ishida. Then the music ended as the singers fell to their knees and bowed their heads to their king; lords kneeling before an empty throne.

Silence passed over the world, and even the rain seemed to hush.

"But." Izzy said after a few moments, dragging his eyes away from the lords. "Matt's the older brother. Don't they know that? Shouldn't he be the king?" He regretted the words immediately, he knew in his heart they did not matter.

"It was the Ishidian way." The Abbot answered softly. "For brothers to fight for the throne… Takeru had him at his mercy before…" The words died away, they did not have to be spoken. "It was the Ishidian way." He finished in a whisper.

A choking sensation filled the back of Matt's throat. His eyes blurred and stung, and his legs felt like they would turn to dust. He would have fallen over if Mimi had not turned around to hug him tight. He buried his face in the hollow of her shoulder.

"I'm sorry." Ryo said suddenly. "This is all my fault. I let Rolen use me when I knew it was a lie. I let him cause all this, and I didn't do anything because I was too afraid of him." His face scrunched up, and tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.

Jun turned and cast him a thoughtful look. "It wasn't anybody's fault." She said after a few moments. "Or if it was, then it was everyone's fault. We all let ourselves be duped and deceived, led around like a bunch of dogs on a leash… We were all afraid, so much that we never stopped and tried to figure out what was causing all the fear." She turned away and stared out into the darkness. And she was thankful when she felt Izzy take her hand in his and give it a gentle squeeze.

Silence once again passed over the group, as everyone's thoughts returned to the months past, and to that which lay ahead in the near future.

"Princess…" Jyou said at last. "How did you escape?"

"Through a lavatory, actually." She answered, not releasing her hold on Matt. A thin smile crossed her face as she heard Izzy and Miyako chuckle lightly.

"We slid down the tunnel from Ryo's room, and dropped into the sewer beneath the castle. Rolen and some of his men came after us… but their armor dragged them down and drowned them, and we somehow managed to take care of Rolen ourselves."

"So Rolen's dead?" Jun asked.

Mimi nodded grimly. "And after that, we just followed the tunnel until we came to a place where we could climb out. And we've spent the last few hours making our way back here… too late to do anything." She said the last part so softly that only she and Matt heard it.

"But-but how did you get through the forest?" Jyou shook his head in frustration. "Those monsters are all over the place! We haven't been able to get a single person through!"

"Well, I don't understand what you're talking about!" Mimi snapped back. "We didn't see anything! I don't even know what one of those things would look like!"

Jyou clenched his hands into shaking fists. He almost at the breaking point, the weight of everything was pressing him into the ground. "They are out there! How did you make it through?"

Mimi's mouth opened for an angry reply, but she never got the chance to say it.

"They were being guarded, of course." Ken stated in an uncaring voice.

They all turned to stare at him, their mouths gaping as they became almost mesmerized by the liquid fire reflected in his violet eyes. The Abbot felt a chill seep into his stomach as his pupil once again reminded him of a detached actor waiting for the cue to say his lines.

"Wha-What did you say?" Jyou asked in disbelief. "Guarded by who?"

Ken gave them all a smug grin. "Men were not the only creatures who bowed to the House of Ishida, not the only ones who killed for them in the darkness, and then stepped with them into the light. Men are not the only ones who have come to mourn their king, the Lord of Wolves."

An echoing howl sounded somewhere far away, and was quickly answered by a nearer one. Matt, looking over Mimi's shoulder, thought he saw two canine forms go loping through the darkness.

"Will they fight?" Jun asked in a whisper, as she and all the rest began to slowly turn and gaze out into the night.

Ken let a sneer come to his lips. "Oh, they will fight alright. There are some out there who remember finding a little boy huddled between the bodies of his slain parents. They nursed him, and kept him warm, and then watched him start on a hopeless quest to find his missing brother… Yes, Princess of Motomiya, they will fight long and hard, and they will die, just like all the rest."

"YOU SONOFABITCH" Jyou screamed. He hurled himself at Ken and shoved him to the ground. He wrapped his left hand around the younger man's throat, and with his right, began to beat him without mercy.

"You're the one who caused this! You're the one who told TK all those lies and got everyone to believe them! You hurt them! You hurt my family!"

Tears streamed down his face even as he snarled like an animal. He let go of his grip on Ken's throat, and used both hands to pound on his face. Jun, Izzy, and the Abbot all leapt forward to pull him off, but Jyou was almost insane with grief and rage. He pushed them away and kept punching. He wanted to beat Ken to death; he wanted to crush him into bloody little pieces for what had happened.

Izzy and the Abbot finally managed to get a hold of Jyou's arms, and Miyako sprang forward to help Jun get a hold around his neck and pull him away.

"You think you're so smart, you goddamn bastard? You think you can see the future?" Jyou kept screaming and kicking out at Ken. "The tell me what's happening to TK and Kari! Tell me what's wrong with them or I'll fucking kill you!" He lashed out one final time, kicking the younger man in the leg as they dragged him back. Then he collapsed into their arms, unable to keep himself from sobbing like a child.

Through it all, Ken had not lifted a single finger in his own defense. He just lay there and absorbed the beating. When he heard Jyou crying, he pushed himself up on his elbows, and gingerly felt his face. "You want to know what's wrong with them, what's killing them?" He asked, his voice raspy with the blood collecting in his mouth.

Jyou did not respond. He kept his eyes closed and tried to force the tears to stop. The others stared at Ken darkly, horrified by him.

Ken wiped his nose and then stared at the blood dripping into his hand. "The boy is already dead. He died two years ago; tortured to death by King Claudius of Kamiya. The girl held him in her arms as he breathed his last, and she cried, and she prayed. And God, or the light, or whatever you want to call it, it heard her. It let her cheat; it let her give half her life, half her heart, to him. And so he opened his eyes, and for a while it seemed like their life would be a fairytale. But then the sins of a long- dead family came back to haunt them both. And the boy was wounded in a war of mistrust and deceit, wounded so gravely that he should have died right then and there… But how can a person die if he shares a life, if his heart beats in perfect rhythm with another? He can't, at least not until the person on the other end of the life dies too. So the girl keeps her lover alive, even as the effort drains away her strength. He drags her down into the depths even as she struggles to keep him afloat. Soon her strength will run out, and then they will both die… And so shall we all, when the Northern hosts spill down the mountain with the dawn. When the wings of the angels are broken, when the lion cries, and the rose wilts."

He wiped his face with the back of his arm as he finished. Then he crawled back to his place by the fire, and returned to staring silently into the withering flames.

The rain began to pick up, falling almost as hard as it had during the day. No one had the will to speak. Izzy and the Abbot helped a weeping Jyou to sit down on the other side of the fire. The Abbott then sat down next to Ken. He looked at the bloodied face of his pupil, and wondered what he could have done to make things different. Jun wrapped her arms around Izzy and pulled him down between herself and Miyako. Matt and Mimi sat beside her. Mimi entwined her hands with Matt's, and laid her head in his lap.

Only Ryo stayed standing, shivering from cold. His eyes were clenched shut. Something about Ken's final words had stirred something in his memory. "When the wings of the angels are broken, when the lion cries, and the rose wilts." He mouthed the words to himself over and over. He had heard those words somewhere before; they were part of something important. He knew they were!

The spark of recognition was so tiny that he was afraid he would lose it if he dared to move. Oh, God please… Someone had said those words to him! It felt like it had been so long ago, so hazy. He remembered crying, crying because he couldn't remember something he was supposed to. The same thing he couldn't remember now!

He felt like screaming… Oh, God please… Please help me…

He waited… And his mind went gray with swirling fog. Stray flashes of silver erupted like lightening behind storm clouds. "When the wings the of the angles are broken." He whispered to himself. "When the lion cries, and the rose wilts, only then will there be a hope of victory."

His voice tapered off as his mind and heart dove through the fog. He held his breath… and slowly, like dripping molasses, the answer bubbled up from the haze.

1 You must speak to the seer with violet eyes… and remind him of the circle with twelve points…

Immediately, Ryo's eyes snapped open. Fear and excitement roared inside him like an inferno. "You're the seer!" He shouted at Ken, startling everyone else. "The seer with violet eyes!"

He threw himself down beside Ken and grabbed him by the shoulders. "The circle with twelve points! I have to remind you of the circle with twelve points!"

"What are you talking about?" Ken scoffed, trying to shove the boy away.

A pang of dread shot through the Ryo's chest. Oh Jesus, what if this wasn't the answer? What if it was all some desperate figment of his imagination?

"The circle with twelve points!" He screamed in Ken's face. "You have to know what that is! You're the only one that could possibly know!"

On the other side of the fire, Matt rose to his feet. Something in the boy's words was making his stomach jump. His eyes became filled with a tiny pinprick of delicate hope.

"Get off me, you stupid brat!" Ken growled as he finally managed to push Ryo away. "I don't know what the hell you're talking—" And then it happened.

The solid, perfect manuscript of the future laid out in Ken's mind began to shimmer. A twist of light, like a sprouting plant, began to grow out of his mental image of Ryo. It curled over the entire picture, flashed once like a beating heart, and then exploded in a galaxy's birth of light. Millions of questions and possibilities went streaking behind his eyes faster than thought. The dark certainty he had clung to all night became only another speck of far off starlight. And above it all, set on a softly spinning axis, was a golden crown with twelve spires.

"Oh, God, not again…" Ken mumbled. He clenched his eyes shut and started to crawl backwards away from the fire. "Don't make me see it all again…"

"Ken, what's wrong?" The Abbot asked, reaching out to him with a tentative hand.

"He knows what the circle is!" Ryo screamed excitedly. "He knows how to stop all this!"

"No!" Ken screeched. "I don't see anything! I won't let it change! I can't! I can't!"

In the blink of an eye Matt was standing in front of Ken. He picked the younger man up by the shoulders and hoisted him into the air. "You know how to stop this?" He demanded. "You know how to save my brother?"

"I won't do it!" Ken franticly shook his head back and forth. "Nothing can make me do it!"

"We'll see about that!" Jyou snarled. He jumped to his feet and backhanded Ken across the face. "You're not letting everyone I care about die!"

"I would rather die." Ken moaned defiantly. "Than have to live through these visions again!"

"What the hell are you all talking about?" Mimi yelled suddenly. "Matt, put him down!"

Matt shook his head. "No, he knows how to stop all this… I feel it." His grip on Ken tightened painfully.

"He's the seer!" Ryo agreed. "He knows how to save everyone!"

"Put. Him. Down!" Mimi commanded, stepping beside Matt and trying to pry his hands from Ken's shoulders.

"Yes, please stop." The Abbot intoned. He pushed Jyou away before taking a strong grip on Matt's other arm and pulling it back. "The visions aren't Ken's fault, he has no control over them."

"It'll be his fault if everyone dies because he won't help us!" Jyou ground his teeth together.

"You can all rot in Hell for what I'd care!" Ken spat.

Matt's eyes flashed with rage, and Mimi had to wrap herself around his body to keep him from moving. The Abbot likewise took a strong hold on a ferociously glaring Jyou.

Izzy tried to rise from his place, but Jun refused to him get up. "I don't know what the hell is going on." She whispered tightly in his ear. "But you won't help getting in the middle of it."

Ken backed away from the fire. "None of you can even imagine what I have to live with!" He screamed, pulling at his hair in frustration. "Every second of every day! Millions of pictures racing through my brain! Showing me every horror of every time and every place! I'm going insane because I can't look at anything without seeing everything! I can't sleep without the pictures plaguing my dreams! And when something finally stopped the pictures! When something was finally certain, when death was certain, with no possibility of change! I finally had peace for the first time in a year!"

He dropped his head into his hands and stumbled backwards a few more paces. "Don't you understand?" He cried. "If I have to die to be at peace, then so be it! And if you all, or even the whole world have to die with me, then so be that too! Because nothing is worth the suffering I live with! Nothing is worth living with it for another hour!"

He stumbled again, and then fell to his knees and began to sob.

Jyou shook his head, tears running down his cheeks. "No." He said. "There are people here who are worth everything… They're worth the suffering of you, and a thousand other people like you! And so help me God, if they die, I'll make your death so painful you'll think those visions of yours are pictures of heaven."

Matt tensed his arms and eyes in agreement.

"I don't care!" Ken wailed. "I don't care!"

"You will…" Matt whispered as he put his hands on Mimi to move her out of the way.

"Wait!" Miyako called out. "Just wait a goddamn minute!" To her own surprise, everyone did wait, turning to stare at her.

She was cold, and scared, and tense, and tired as hell of watching her loved ones coming apart at the seams. She wiped her eyes and then stood up and looked at them all, wanting to tell them so much but unable to find the words. She shook her head sadly and then looked at the poor young man keeling in the mud as he cried, and her heart overflowed with tenderness and pity. She walked over to him slowly, ignoring the curious eyes that followed her. She bent down to him, and tears and words seemed to spring up from her heart.

"I know it's impossible for us to understand, or even imagine how much pain you feel every day. But we've all suffered, we've all been hurt and lost people we love. I had to watch my parents and one of my brothers rot to death from the plague, and not a month after they were buried, I saw my other brother fall off a horse and break his neck… Our lives are full of suffering, people wake up every morning knowing that they will feel pain and heartache. But every now and then, we get a day, or an hour, or a minute that is so full of love and joy that it makes all the suffering worth it. And so we struggle on through life just to have more of those beautiful, wonderful moments."

She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder as tears coursed down her face. "You say that you can see everything, then you must be able to see those happy moments. And somewhere in there, you have to be able to see some of those moments for yourself. Moments that are worth all the suffering in the world just to be able to hope that they might come true."

She felt everyone's eyes on her back as she stood up and took her hand from his shoulder. She turned around, and suddenly felt a wave of embarrassment wash over her. But before she could even lower her head, Mimi rushed over and threw her arms around her. Miyako couldn't think of any way to respond except to hug her back.

Though still keeling in the mud with his head bowed, Ken had stopped crying. Something in Miyako's gentle voice had almost seemed to soothe the pain and fear inside him. He wondered if she could possibly know some of the things he knew, if she could feel some of the things that raced through his mind and heart.

He opened his eyes, and slowly raised his head. "The twelve gifts." He said in a softly cracking voice.

"What?" "Miyako breathlessly asked, as everyone's eyes returned to Ken

"The twelve gifts, the twelve virtues of mankind given by heaven to light the darkest hours of the world."

"What will they do?" Mimi asked excitedly. "How do we get them, or-or find them?"

"I don't know what they will do." Ken shook his head. "In all of history they have only been called together twice, the last coming after the execution by Rome of a carpenter from Galilee… And those two instances appear in my visions only as flashes of blinding white light, like a portrait dipped in bleach."

"As for where they are…" His violet eyes trailed over them all. "They are right here." He clenched his eyes shut and covered his face with his hands. "All of you need to go to the tent where they lay, and bring the Kamiyian king and queen, and the Hidian monk with you."

For a speechless moment no one moved, all too stunned and confused to really believe there could be any hope.

"For your own sake's, hurry!" Ken shouted. "Dawn is coming and by then it will be too late!"

Immediately Jyou raced away, stumbling as fast as he could to Tai and Sora's tent. He hurriedly moved the flap away, and tried to ignore the sinking of his heart as he stepped inside.

Tai was lying unconscious on the bed, flushed and drenched in sweat that glistened sickeningly in the sparse candlelight. His chest rose and fell in quick gasps, and his head rolled fitfully over the pillow. Sora was keeling beside him, wiping his face and neck with a damp cloth. Her face was red and blotchy from endless crying, and her eyes were listless and glassy as she turned at Jyou's entrance.

"Oh, Jyou thank God." She softly exclaimed. "I've been wanting to go find you but I was afraid to leave Tai… He's so sick, Jyou… I-I don't know what to do." She was heartsick and exhausted, barely able to keep herself awake and lucid.

Jyou quickly crossed over to the bed, instinctively bending over to feel Tai's pulse and temperature. His forehead was ablaze with fever, and his heart was straining itself to keep up a frenzied pace. Jyou grimaced and checked the wound in his side. It was still oozing blood, and the tissue around it was swollen and red with infection.

"Sora, listen." Jyou said grimly, as he pulled away the blanket around Tai's legs. "We have to take Tai over to TK and Kari's tent."

"Are you crazy?" Sora shook her head at him. "He's sick Jyou! We can't move him while he's like this!"

"He's dying." Jyou told her flatly. "We all are, unless we can get him to TK and Kari's tent."

"Wha-What are you talking about?" Sora's voice quivered and fresh tears sparkled in her eyes. "What good will it do?" She wrapped her fingers around one of Tai's hands.

"I don't know." Jyou admitted as he grabbed Tai's cloak off the ground. "Everything I know and believe in tells me it won't do anything. But something inside me won't let me stop trying to fight, and this is our only hope… Please, Sora." He begged. "Just help me."

She turned away from him as she fought against her tears, but then she breathed deeply, and gently took her husband by the shoulders. "Wake up, Tai…" She whispered. "Come on, sweetheart, wake up…"

Tai groaned in response. His eyes snapped open briefly, then fluttered like butterfly wings before settling half-closed. "Kari…" He mumbled, weakly shaking his head. "TK… Just like Mom and Dad… Just like Davis… Marble stones in the courtyard…"

"No, Tai!" Jyou said as he pulled his friend up and wrapped the cloak around his shoulders. "We're not going to let that happen."

They pulled Tai's arms across their shoulders and eased him out of the bed. He was too weak to stand on his own, so they held him up between them as they slowly, and painfully made their way out of the tent. Sora was so tired that she stumbled frequently in the sticking mud, and Jyou grunted with exertion as he bent his waist to make sure that most of Tai's weight fell on him. They were almost to the green and gold tent when Cody appeared beside them, summoned by Miyako who had gone running through the camp to find him.

"Here, Sora." He said, as he lifted Tai's arm off her shoulders. "Let me take him."

The queen hesitated, then nodded reluctantly and let the young monk take her place. She placed a hand on Tai's shoulder, and shuffled sideways through the mud as Jyou and Cody carried him to where Miyako was anxiously holding the tent flap open for them.

"Queen Sora, Lord Jyou!" Lord Artur walked up to them from where he, and the rest of the old Ishidian lords had been keeping vigil. "What is happening? Why is everyone gathering here?"

Sora paid him no attention, all her focus was on Tai. And Jyou just wearily shook his head. "I honestly don't know what to tell you, my Lord."

Artur opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment Ken appeared at the opening of the tent. "Lord Artur." He said sharply. "I must speak to you."

"What?" The old man asked surprised. Ken had not spoken a word to him since they had been introduced.

Ignoring the stunned response, Ken went up to the old lord and began to whisper in his ear. "Go around to all the fires and all the men. Tell them… Tell them there is hope. But that they must show no sign of anything but despair until the beasts begin to charge down the mountain. Then they must be ready to fight for as long as it takes… And tell them that the wolves are our allies."

"What in God's name?" Artur stepped back, glaring at Ken angrily. "Lad, I am too old a man to listen to such nonsensical crap in the hour before I die! Now what is going on?"

Despite himself, Ken smirked. "I am telling you the truth, Lord Artur. The slimmest hope exists that we will live the past the dawn. And if you chose not to believe in that, then everything you know and love is forfeit." He paused and looked towards the mountains. "The Northern beasts must not have the slightest inclination of what we are trying to do until it is impossible to hide it from them. And by then, our forces must be prepared to hold them at bay until the very—"

His head suddenly burned with pain, and he had to choke back a scream as he covered his face with his hands.

"Lad?" Artur whispered, his expression immediately softening.

"Never mind!" Ken moaned. "Just do as I have told you!" Then he went stumbling, almost falling, back to the tent.

Artur stared after him, feeling very confused and very weak. His diseased hands suddenly cramped, making him grimace in pain as his fingers twisted around themselves. I am a tired and worthless old man, he thought, drowning in times and matters that are far above my sphere of understanding. But even as he thought this, a tiny light seemed to spring up in his heart, and the song of wolves once again played itself in his soul. His shaking hand moved towards the hilt of the heavy sword at his side. "For my King and my Queen." He whispered reverently, lovingly. Then he stepped through the darkness to fulfill his task.

Ken stopped at the opening of the tent to watch the old man go. Then another surge of pain suddenly ripped through his skull and he almost threw up. He had never tried to control the visions before, never tried to make them show him only what he wanted to see. And they were not reacting kindly to his sudden display of will. He had to wait for the pain to dull before stepping inside the tent.

The Kamiyians were gathered around the bed where not long before, Hikari had lain herself down beside her husband before losing consciousness. The Tachikawans looked at them with pity and worry as they stood against the canvas wall. The tent was warm and steamy with body heat and condensing rain.

"They're barely breathing at all." Jyou tensely confirmed what Ken already knew.

"What… What are we doing here?" Tai had regained enough clarity of mind to ask between gasping breaths. He glanced around at Matt, and his eyes creased in anger. "What is he doing here?"

Matt did not respond, but his blue eyes full of sorrow and guilt met Tai's gaze and held it until the young king sheepishly looked away.

"We're all in this together now." Izzy announced. Then he looked straight at Ken. "Aren't we?"

Ken gave another smug grin, his only armor against the pain and uncertainty charging through him. "You've been in this together from the very beginning. Each of you, with the exception of the Abbot and the former boy- king," He nodded towards his mentor and Ryo. "was chosen at conception to be the embodiment of one of the twelve virtues of mankind, safeguards against the periodic rise of the darkness… And this is perhaps the darkest hour the world has yet known."

His eyes traveled over everyone in the tent, instinctively expecting questions and doubts. But every pair of eyes was grimly set. This was the only road they had left, whether they believed in it or not.

"Just tell us what to do." Matt said firmly.

Ken sighed and closed his eyes, leafing through the millions of pictures in his mind to find the ones he needed. "The circle begins with them." He said finally, pointing to Kari and TK lying on the bed. "It begins with Light and Hope." He blinked deeply and licked his lips. "Then it's—"

He bit his cheek in pain as another burst tore through him. His entire body seemed to squeeze itself so tightly that he almost couldn't breathe.

"Ken, are you okay?" Miyako asked with genuine concern.

"It doesn't matter." He grunted a reply.

He concentrated, because even as the pain faded it left a tingling of warning in his mind. And in another instant it appeared to him what he was being warned of.

"Wait." He said. "They're too powerful. Without them being conscious to add the element of control, the circle will be torn apart."

He closed his eyes again, and was thankful that the answer came to him almost as soon as he started to search. "Abbot." He said. "Take Takeru's hand… Ryo, take Hikari's. The two of you will have to act as buffers, help control some of the power."

The old man and the boy quickly and wordlessly did as they were told. Ken almost warned them of how dangerous this would be. But he already knew that both of them were willing no matter what the risk. Ryo was desperate to make up for being a pawn of Rolen's. And for the Abbot, it was simply another part of his eternal penance for what he had done to a little boy with haunting blue eyes.

"We need someone else." Ken continued. "Someone close to Takeru and Hikari who can act as the bridge between them."

"Lucas!" Sora spoke out immediately. "He's their captain… Cody, go find him."

The monk nodded his agreement, but before he could take more than a step, Lucas appeared at the opening of the tent.

"That's okay, Highness." He said softly. "I'm right here." Rain dribbled from his curly black hair. His eyes were sunken and bloodshot. And he looked more like a gaunt old warrior than the boy he was. "I saw Lord Artur running around, he said something was going on."

"Did you hear what I was saying?" Ken wasted no time.

The boy gave a shallow nod. "I heard what I need to hear, I guess." Then without another word he stepped forward and climbed on the bed, his muddy boots and cloak further staining silk sheets already marked by rain and blood. He reached out and took Kari's hand in his right, TK's in his left. He gave no care to the danger. He had already failed to protect his lord and lady once, he would not do so again.

Ken gave a short sigh of relief. He noticed that he had started to sweat, and his hand trembled as he wiped his forehead. "After Light and Hope comes Courage." He said. "That's you, Tai."

The young king took a deep breath, and gingerly stepped close enough to take the Abbot's hand.

"Then Love, Sora." The young queen took a hold of her husband's hand and squeezed it tight.

"Friendship." Matt's heart panged when Ken looked him in the eye. It didn't seem like the kind of virtue a person like him could ever posses. He bowed his head as he walked around to the other side of the tent, and lightly took Sora's tentatively outstretched hand.

"Sincerity, that's the Princess." Mimi couldn't keep a small, nervous blush from her face as she walked over to lace her fingers with Matt's.

"Fidelity, Jyou. Then Knowledge, Izzy." The two young men nodded to each other before taking their places. Izzy fought back the cheerless urge to say that his virtue was 'finally one that made sense'.

"Justice." The line continued. "Brother Cody." The young monk flinched involuntarily, but quickly joined the others.

"Compassion." Ken's voice softened, and he kept his eyes locked with Miyako's as she took her place.

He blinked deeply and then turned to Jun, but before he could speak, a series of pictures whipped past the space behind his eyes, a boy as brave as any man, too brave to ever become a man. He looked back at Jun, filled with the feeling that she had somehow seen it too.

"Davis…" She whispered, new tears coming to life in her eyes. "He… He should be here instead of me… He was supposed to be here."

"He was chosen." Ken told her softly. "And then he chose to give his life, and pass his gift to the sister he dearly loved. To share with her, the power of Miracles."

Jun allowed a wet gasp to pass from her throat as she took Miyako's hand. She looked across to the other side of the tent and saw Tai and Sora looking back at her, their eyes filled with slowly shedding tears. They had loved and mourned Davis too, hadn't they, she thought. How could she have hated them for so long just because Davis was brave, and foolish, and her brother?

"And that just leaves me." Ken said at last, taking his place between Jun and Ryo. "Kindness." The word left a salty, guilty feeling in his stomach. He took their hands and completed the circle, and as he did so, the clarity of the pictures in his head seemed to diminish until he could no longer see them, like a part of his mind had gone numb. It was a troubling feeling even though he had long wished they would go away. He was blind now, with no way of knowing what might happen.

"What do we do now?" Tai asked.

Ken felt a shot of dread and doubt go careening off the walls of his chest, he really didn't know for sure. "Just wait." He said. "And don't break the circle, don't break it no matter what happens."

Silence feel over the tent, and for many long moments not a thing happened. Hands became clammy and slick, they all began to nervously shift their feet and squirm their shoulders… Matt kept his eyes glued on Takeru's still form. His head had fallen against Hikari's, dirty blonde hair mingling with soft golden brown.

Suddenly, from up in the mountains the beasts began their growling chant once again, angry and urgent, like a monster roused from sleep.

"They've discovered what we're doing." Ken said, glancing nervously towards the tent flap.

Immediately outside the tent could be heard shouting and the clanking of armor. And then from what seemed like all around, there came the strong, challenging howls of hundreds of wolves.

Matt began to feel dread pumping through his chest. He suddenly felt very weak and very vulnerable. He looked around the circle and noticed that everyone seemed to have gone ashen, like the fear was a virus running through them all. He felt both Mimi and Sora's hands start to tremble wildly in his grasp. And still nothing was happening…

A horse galloped by behind Matt's back, and the sounds of shouting outside became louder, trying to rise above the fearsome, wailing crescendo flowing from the mountains. Terror ran cold through Matt's veins. He couldn't stand it anymore, he needed a sword, he couldn't just stand there and wait to be slaughtered! The tent seemed to get unbearably hot, like an oven. He loosened his grip on Sora's hand…

"Don't break the circle!" Ken shouted in a quaking voice, even though he desperately wanted to do it himself.

Matt reflexively tightened his hold, biting into his cheek to keep from crying out. He clenched his eyes shut, trying to block out the fear… Was he imagining it, or were Mimi and Sora's hands suddenly buzzing with electricity? No, he shook his head, he had to be imagining it. He took a deep breath and licked his lips. Just hold on… Just hold on…

His ears started to drift into the world outside the tent. He heard padded feet on pine needles, the deep panting of long pink tongues lolling out of narrow muzzles, rain drops falling on tangled, matted fur, the hissing of bared fangs, panicked hearts beating beneath cold steel, hurriedly whispered prayers.

And before he could place them all, they blended into the roar of the wind that shot up from his feet and whipped past his face. In shock he threw open his eyes, only to be greeted by a blinding white, like sunlight reflected on snow. He tried to shut his eyes again, but the white shone through his eyelids until he could not tell if he had his eyes open or closed.

The roar of the wind became louder, and he could feel its pull on his hair and clothes, together with the slight pressure on his hands. But no sooner did Matt realize this, then all sensation left him. No sound, no feeling, no sight except the white.

Was he still holding on? Was the circle still together? The thought horrified him, but an instant later it was gone, sucked away by the wind he no longer felt.

What circle? What-What's happening?

He tried to think back, but there nothing left in his mind to think back to. His memory was empty. He couldn't remember who his parents were, or his friends. He couldn't remember what he looked like. It had all been erased, vacuumed away. He was dissolving into nothingness.

Terror flooded whatever was left of him, but immediately the fear was gone, taken away like everything else.

I'm being pulled apart, he thought. Peeled away layer by layer like an onion. Only, what was an onion? An instant later the words themselves had no meaning.

His abstract thoughts began to grow thin, but instinctively he resisted the void that sought to devour him. Only two things, two real, random thoughts remained to him.

The silly jingling of Takeru's laugh when he was a little boy…

The way Mimi looked in the dark, stray beams of moonlight playing with her long hair, painting her back and shoulders the color of cream…

What was left of Matt did not have the ability to understand these things, but for some reason they made him feel warm…

Then all at once the white and the wind were gone, and Matt was doubled up on the floor of the tent, a choking sound coming from his throat as he tried to scream. His insides felt like they had been tied into knots and then set on fire. He tried to move, but his limbs were heavy as lead; he couldn't even flex his fingers. A moment later the pain became hellishly unbearable. All his joints locked into place and his throat closed on itself. He could almost hear his teeth grinding themselves down. It felt as if he were being crushed by a giant fist. Hot needles shot through his crying lungs and he wished that the void had just swallowed him.

But just as the seizure had reached its worst, it let him go. Blessed air swept into his lungs and washed down through his limbs. He rolled over on his stomach and gagged on the bile that had been pushed up into his throat. Sweat poured off his face and his whole body trembled with weakness, he could barely get to his knees without falling over. Disoriented and confused, he looked wildly around the tent.

Everyone was splayed out unconscious on the floor. There were no traces of pain or worry on any of their faces, they all seemed to be caught up in a peaceful slumber. Mimi's hair had fallen over her face, and was lightly being brushed by the long, low breaths from her pouting lips.

Matt heard a muffled groan of pain. His eyes shot up to the bed, where Takeru seemed to be locked in the same kind of seizure he had just experienced. The young man's back arched into the air, and his fists were balled so tightly that his fingernails dug into the flesh and drew blood.

Matt lunged weakly forward to help his brother, but only succeeded in falling forward on his face. With a curse he reached up and grabbed a handful of the bed sheets, his arms shaking like mad as he slowly and painfully pulled himself up. But by the time he managed to lean his chest over the edge of the bed, Takeru had already been released from the crushing grip. He had sunk back into the bed, sweat glistening on his body and asleep like everyone else, including the wife that dozed quietly beside him. Matt gave a long sigh of relief, and let his cheek rest against the soft sheets. He let his eyes fall closed and his body relax. It was okay… Everything was okay…

He almost fell asleep, but then excitement suddenly welled inside him, shooting up through his chest like a geyser. His eyes snapped open and his hands griped the sheets tightly. He almost didn't dare to believe… But he slowly lifted his head, gazing at his brother in shock and wonder.

Somehow, the bandages around TK's torso had been ripped away, revealing that the wound in his stomach was gone, not even a scar, nothing at all to suggest someone had ever torn a dagger through the smooth, flushed skin.

Matt was scared to let himself believe it could be true. He reached out and felt Takeru's stomach, running his hand over the area where the wound had been. His breathing came in excited pants. He looked over to where Tai was laying on the ground. The young king's cloak was opened and his bandages were in tatters, the wounds in his side and head had disappeared and the fever was gone from his face. The hope and excitement grew even more, tears of joy blurred Matt's eyes. He pulled up his sleeve and looked at his wrist, the softly throbbing gash that had been there since the day before was gone, wiped away.

"It worked." He whispered to himself. "Oh my God, it worked." A broad, awed smile broke out on his face, and for the first time in ages he almost laughed. But then a high shriek of pain broke through the canvas walls and assailed his ears, and on its heels came all the horribly familiar sounds of battle.

All the relief and happiness immediately fled from Matt, flying from him like a frightened bird. "Stupid! Careless!" He berated himself. They may have created a miracle, but it was a rare miracle that wiped out entire armies. Holding on to the bed, he pushed himself wearily to his feet. His legs ached and quivered in protest, begging him to lie down and sleep like everyone else. Jesus, he felt so weak, so weak and so alone, the only one awake and aware of the danger.

He kept a hand on the bed to steady himself, and did his best not to stumble over the tangle of arms and legs as he made his way to the flap. There was a rack of swords against the wall near the bed, and Matt grabbed one of them and used it to prop himself up as he let go of the bed and stepped awkwardly to the opening. He looked out over the field, and his eyes went wide with amazement.

The rain had stopped, and the dark purple sky was filled with heavy silver clouds that seemed to be spilling light over the battlefield. A mass of dead beasts lay like some horrible carpet spread from the mountains to the edge of the camp, there had to be thousands of them. Those beasts still alive were engaged in what appeared to be a final, futile battle with the defenders. The wolves darted in and out of the throng, their muzzles frothy with blood.

Matt's mind whirled as it tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Miracles didn't wipe out whole armies, did they?

His wildest imagination would not have provided him an answer. Even as he had felt himself being lost to the white void of the circle, a pulsing light had radiated from the simple green and gold tent, crashing over the battlefield like a wave driven before a hurricane. It was not even visible to the defenders, who only perceived it as a momentary rush of excitement and courage ringing in their hearts like the last echoes of a song. To the wolves, it was only a warm hand sliding down their backs. But to the armies of the northern darkness it was destruction.

The youngest and weakest, of which more than half of the beasts qualified, were struck down instantly, their blood superheated to the point that their organs boiled. Those strong enough to resist the heat and the light were caught by a web of madness and fear that streaked their fur white and sent them racing back to the mountains and the safety of their northern snows, not to trouble the South for years to come. Only the most powerful beasts, those fortified by hundreds of sunless winters, retained their wits and their lives. And they fought with the strength and fearless abandon that only comes to those who are doomed. They would fall to the cold determination and steel of the men, and the crushing jaws of the wolves.

But Matt, watching the battle unfold, did not feel any sort of impending triumph. His strength was waning even as his dread grew. There was still danger and death close by, the last blow of a war could kill just as easily as the first. His hunter eyes narrowed and scanned the field. Looking for he last threat he sensed lurking, wishing and praying he wouldn't find it, but knowing without a doubt that he would.

A few seconds later he saw it, skirting around the far side of the camp, far from the battle. There were around a dozen of them, maybe a few less or more, not that it would make much difference. All of them were tall and powerful, quick and agile, their eyes all glowed a poisoned yellow.

Matt's shoulders slumped and a deadly chill settled on his heart. No one else would see them, he knew, as he turned around a weakly grabbed another sword from the rack. No one would hear a thing over the din of the battle. Christ, he hoped they wouldn't come faster now that they knew he had seen them. He needed to buy all the time he could.

"Please, God, please…" He whispered. "You wouldn't make everyone go through this if they were just going to die anyway…"

There were tears in his eyes as he hefted both swords, ignoring the way his arms screamed from exhaustion, willing himself to be strong one last time. He turned back to the beasts, saw them hiss and flash sharp, sly smiles, their fangs gleaming just as brightly as their spears.

"Come on you bastards!" Matt shouted, stepping far away from the green and gold tent. "You're not going to get near them!"

The beasts stopped in the shadow of another tent, taking the time to eye Matt as they crouched low to the ground. Some of them threw away their spears and made a show of flexing their claws.

Matt moved a few steps farther from the tent where everything he cared about slept. He blinked away the tears and tightened his grip on the swords. "Come on!"

The beasts tensed their muscles. The leader's eyes glowed amber, it growled, a sound like bones rattling in a crypt. And then they sprung—

"FOR THE GLORY OF ISHIDA!" Lord Artur appeared from nowhere, his sword raised unsteadily over his head. He dove straight into the midst of the beasts' ranks, startling them for a few long seconds. He swung his sword with his last bit of life, cutting down two before the beasts howled in fury and moved back against him. They pulled him to the muddy ground, and their spears hung in the air like wasps before they plunged down on him, over and over… One blood-drenched and shaking old hand reached up above the stinging spears and grabbed the nearest beast by the throat, crushing its windpipe. The beast stumbled backwards and fell with a gagging rasp. While the old hand quivered in the air for an extra second before floating back down under the spears, its trembling and cramping silenced at last.

No! Matt yelled in his mind as he began to charge. No one else! No one else! An anguished scream tore from his lips as he bore down on the beasts.

Only the leader was not caught up in the butchering, and turned to meet him. It bared its claws and leapt at Matt with horrendous speed, catching both his wrists before he could bring across his swords. Then it lunged forward and sank its fangs deep into his left shoulder.

Matt heard himself cry out in pain as white fire ripped through his arm. He kicked out reflexively, catching the beast twice in the stomach before it jumped away. With his unhurt arm, Matt swung his sword low, trying to take out the thing's legs. But it hopped easily over the blow and darted in to rake Matt's face, tearing open his left cheek. Matt teetered backwards on his feet, clenching his teeth as his cheek began to throb with pain. Blood filled his mouth and dribbled down his chin.

The beast leapt at him again, getting inside his arms and dragging its claws down his chest. But Matt was waiting for it, waiting for it to extend itself just a little too far. His right arm dropped beneath the claws, and when he brought it up the point of the sword came first, punching through the beast's stomach and emerging from its back. The creature's glowing yellow eyes bulged, and it gave a final weak growl before Matt put his foot against its chest and pushed it off the sword, letting it fall to the mud with a soft splat.

It felt like fire and lightning were warring across Matt's body, sizzling and cracking in his wounds. Blood trailed from his shoulder, cheek, and chest. His strength drained by drops from his body and splashed in the mud… The surviving beasts watched him, waiting to pounce.

He was alone…

"I love you…" He whispered… Takeru playing in their mother's garden… Mimi whispering to him in the dark… "I'm sorry…"

He charged at the beasts, both swords swinging wildly. He cleaved the first one's head in two, then pushed farther into them, stabbing and cutting into the twisting mass of mangy, stinking fur. For a few steps he had them retreating backwards behind the propped up body of their fallen comrade. But then their rage pushed beyond their surprise, and they moved to the attack.

Matt tried to keep them at arm's length with his indiscriminate sword strokes, but their claws dug into his arms as he swung. The sword in his left hand was knocked away, he struck out blindly with his fist and heard his knuckles break against a piece of armor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of them move over to his right, and before he could bring his sword around, a spear slipped into his stomach and nudged against his ribs. The pain seemed to freeze him in place as another spear pierced his thigh, and a pair of claws ripped even deeper into his chest.

The world slowed for Matt… The pain flared and then grew numb, cold pooled up in his muscles. He tasted the blood sliding up his throat. His vision blurred and he felt his legs buckle beneath him. He began to fall backwards, and his eyes caught a glimpse of a slowly lightening sky as they rolled back.

But then… he was no longer falling, a strong arm was around his back, holding him. His eyes drifted up, already knowing who would be there. A young, dirty face with messy golden hair and blue eyes pulsing with tears of anger, sadness, and worry.

"Don't move, Matt." TK whispered. His eyes flashed back and forth between his brother and the seven beasts still living. He held out his sword and dared them to take a step. "I'll get you out of here."

"No." Matt weakly shook his head. "They won't stop, we have to finish them."

Even as the words left his mouth the beasts coiled their legs. Menacing growls erupted from their throats and they sprang.

Both brothers instinctively moved to shield each other, their swords crossed, their hands touched… And the light in their hearts, anxious to spread and sun its wings after the white void had cleansed the centuries of oily darkness, exploded within them. Its humming song soared through their bodies, full of strength and love and courage. Their eyes became the bottomless blue of an ocean, strong and limitless.

Matt no longer felt his wounds as he jumped to his feet beside Takeru. The beasts seemed to be hanging in mid-air, moving in slow motion. His sword flashed like mercury and three of them were dead before they hit the ground. He gasped in stunned relief as he realized that the dark part of them and its thirst for blood was gone, replaced by a bold, golden light that existed only so they could protect those they loved.

He looked over at Takeru, who was starring in amazement at the four dead beasts at his feet, and a smile crossed his face. "My little brother…" He whispered to himself. The light began to fade and slip away from him, he heard it leaving as a sad, beautiful song. The borrowed strength left him and the taste of blood came back to his mouth. The sword fell from his hand as he crumpled to the ground.

"Matt!" TK screamed in panic. He dove to his knees beside his brother and pressed his hands against the streaming wounds. "Oh God, just stay still and I'll get help…" He raised his head to call out in a cracking voice.

"No." Matt said softly as he gently grabbed TK's arm. "There's nothing you can do, Takeru." Miracles can't be bought cheap. A ram has to be sacrificed and its blood painted on the doorpost to keep the darkness away.

"No... No!" TK shook his head defiantly as his face contorted with tears. "There has to be some way… There has to be!"

Matt gave a thin smile and moved his head a little to one side. "Do you hear that?" He asked. "Silence… you can't hear the battle anymore, can you? There's no more fighting… It's all over now, everything's okay."

"You're not okay." TK cried.

"But you're okay." Matt told him in a peaceful whisper. "Everybody we love is okay, that's what matters."

The tears rolled heedlessly down TK's cheeks even as he struggled not to cry. "I just found you again, Matt. I can't lose you a second time, not now."

"We never lost each other, Takeru, at least not the important parts." Matt reached out and weakly took TK's hand. "You have to watch over our family now, alright?"

TK grasped Matt's bloodied hand tightly as he nodded. "I won't ever let anything hurt them."

"I know…" Matt whispered.

The brothers stared into each other's eyes, saying things in the silent language that all brothers share, even those separated by a lifetime.

"Matt?" Mimi's worried and weary voice interrupted them as she tumbled out of the tent, the only one besides the brothers to yet awaken. Her eyes fell on where her lover lay, and she felt the soft crystal tinkling of her heart breaking. "Oh God, oh Jesus, no…" She started to run, falling almost immediately, and then half-crawling half-stumbling to his side.

Matt and TK looked at each other a second longer. Then TK gave a small nod and moved away, climbing to his feet and walking a few steps before sinking back to his knees as sobs racked his frame.

Mimi took his place at Matt's side, her eyes glowing with tears as they moved frantically up and down his tortured body, knowing he was dying. "Oh Lord, Matt…" She said in a quivering whisper. "Just hold on… Please just hold on…"

"Shhh." Matt gave her a slender smile as he reached up to lovingly caress her face, painting it with the deep red of his blood. "It's okay, Meems. There's not a thing to worry about… I love you so much."

She choked on her own tears and clutched his hand to her cheek. "Please…" She begged him softly. "Stay here with me. I love you."

They were the same words she had said to him years ago, when they were little more than children, naive and afraid of their tender new love.

Matt's smile grew a little broader. "I thought you said you were never going to ask me that again?" His voice had melted into a fragile whisper.

"I lied." She admitted in a tear-drenched voice. "I'll ask you a million times a day for the rest of my life… Just please don't leave me alone."

His last tears came to life in the corners of his eyes. "You'll never be alone…"

She closed her eyes, her tears mixed with his blood on her cheeks. "Matt… I have to tell you something…" Her warm brown eyes blinked back open, her infinite love for him pouring out of every part of her being. "You're going to be a father, Matt… We're going to have a baby…"

He had to fight to keep a sly smile from his face. "I know." He whispered faintly.

"Wha-what?" She stammered, her shining eyes growing wide. "Don't play with me, Matt, there's no way you could know."

His smile broke free on his mouth and in his eyes, broad and beaming, using the last bit of his strength to radiate with love for her. "Haven't I ever told you that you talk in your sleep?"

Mimi stared at him in shock for a moment before breaking into to an uncontrollable fit of laughter, teary and sparkling, with a sad, sweet song blooming inside it. It was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.

His smile dried and blew away on the wind. His eyes fell closed and his head rolled gently against her leg. Her laughter changed to sobs of anguish and she cradled his head in her lap, leaning over to kiss him one last time.

And on the horizon, the newborn sun spilled its brilliant orange and yellow paints on the beginnings of a beautiful new day.



For three months no one left the shelter of Rolen's castle. It was a long enough time for everyone to get their strength back, for everyone to cry and mourn, long enough for two families to become one. It was a warm, bittersweet time, set against the roaring of winter snows outside. Near the end of the third month, TK knelt before the Abbot of Ichijouji in the main hall and received the heavy iron crown of Ishida. He then stood, turned to Kari sitting beside him (She was by now far too pregnant to kneel) and gently set a small crown of interwoven iron and gold on her head. He helped her to stand as the hall erupted with cheers for the new King and Queen of Ishida.

Soon after the coronation, the snows began to melt and periodic patches of green were glimpsed in the field and forest. Everyone soon grew restless and anxious to return home. The Ishidian lords were among the first to leave, traveling in small groups back to their manors, always bearing the banner of the blue-eyed wolf in front of them.

Most of the real wolves had drifted away with the first hint of snow, though a number of them could always be seen patrolling the forests around the castle. They would also be glimpsed wherever the royal family traveled.

One chill day, Jun received word from her father that he was growing ill, and wished for his heir and daughter to return home to Motomiya. She quickly made her goodbyes, promising to write frequently and visit whenever the opportunity arose. She even hugged Sora and firmly shook Tai's hand. It was of little surprise to anyone that Izzy went with her, except possibly to Izzy himself.

A few days after they left, Tai gave the order for the Kamiyians to prepare to return home. And a week later the remains of the column started north. Tai absolutely insisted that Sora leave Ishida the same way she entered it; in the steel-plated carriage, or the "pregnancy wagon" as everyone had begun to call it. "Your brother's going to make it a very long five-or-so- months for me." Sora told Kari with a sigh as she climbed inside. Kari could not say anything to the contrary, Tai had bordered on being a nervous wreck for days after he learned he was going to be a father. Cody accompanied them to the border, then turned east towards the coastal villages where he taught and preached every spring and summer.

Lord Rordan, Lord Artur and many other warriors would, sadly, never be able to return to their homes. They would instead rest beneath the site of the Kamiyian camp, their final beds marked by long rows of marble stones.

The Tachikawans would be the last large group to leave, mostly because Mimi could not yet bring herself to leave Matt. She visited him often, even more so than Takeru. His grave was away from the others, just at the edge of the forest, shaded by a great oak tree. She would have stayed near him until the baby was born if she had thought it responsible. But her kingdom and her people needed her, and Matt would have been the first to insist she return. There will be changes when I get back, she told herself. She was too strong and too sad now to be called a princess, the title seemed to sound too childish whenever she heard it said aloud. It was time she became a queen.

Two weeks after the Kamiyians left, Mimi gave the signal for her troops to start for home. Miyako and Ken, just in the beginnings of a shy, blushing courtship, went with her. The Abbot also rode with them for a time, before bowing his head and striking out for the Ichijouji Monastery, very ready to go back to life among his books and vegetable patch.

Ryo would be invited to stay and live at the castle, and he would periodically. But his true destiny lay across the sea, in a far-away kingdom, where he would find fame as a great explorer.

As TK and Kari saw them all off, they began to wonder if they too should leave. Rolen's castle, as they still called it, was so full of dark memories. Wouldn't it be better to find another home that was truly theirs, rather than sharing one with centuries of ghosts? But after much thought, they came to realize that as it was their duty to redeem the tainted history of Ishida, so too, was it their duty to redeem the castle, by making it a home worthy of laughter and love. Their fist opportunity to do so came scarcely two weeks after everyone had left.

TK, with Lucas at his side, had been riding for a few days in the countryside surrounding the castle, taking stock of the land and people. One rainy night, shortly after sunset, they stopped at a small mill outside an almost as small village. They asked the miller if they could seek shelter with him for the night, and though the man was more than willing to give them whatever help he could, he told them that he did not think his home would be the most comfortable place to spend the night. A man and a woman had knocked at his door two days earlier, he told them. They had a little boy with them who could not have been older than three, and who was sick with a fever. The man and woman asked him if he would watch the poor boy while they went into the village to find some herbs or medicine. The miller agreed immediately, and made the child as comfortable as he could. But the man and the woman had not come back, no one in the village had seen them come or go, and the boy's fever had worsened to the point that death could not be far away.

As TK stepped inside the small room, he saw the boy lying in a bed over in the corner. He was red with heat and shivering from the chill. Light brown hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat, and eyes the color of freshly washed green grapes wildly blinked open and closed.

TK felt his heart cry out in pain, and without another thought he went over to the bed and picked up the boy. He wrapped the child in his cloak and ran for his horse, jumping up in the saddle and riding for hours in the dark and rain, the boy clutched to his chest, and Lucas trailing wearily after him.

It was close to midnight when they made it back to the castle, and the horses were ready to drop. TK raced inside and up the stairs to their room. Kari met him at the door, looking at the boy, and then into her husband's eyes for only a moment before calling for damp rags, cold water, and every kind of salve, herb, and balm Jyou had left with them. All through the night they hovered over the boy, nursing him, coaxing the fever out of his cheeks. And when dawn finally broke, so did the fever. The boy slept soundly curled up in their bed.

As Kari looked down at him, a sly, tired smile crossed her face and she took TK's hand. "I hope our other children will give me an easier time than this one." She told him. TK just gave her a small grin and pulled her close.

When the boy awoke, they learned that his name was Kit. But any other questions posed him, such as "Where are your parents?", were met only by a flinching shrug. It was not until two months later, after Kari had given birth to a girl and a boy, in that order, named Angela and Ethan, that Kit, after studying the babies intently, would look up at TK and say. "I want to stay here with you and Kari." He would never call them Mom or Dad unless he was getting a fever.

"Well that's good." TK told the boy as he picked him up and put him on his shoulders. "Because we were planning on keeping you."

Kit would be a strong, slightly serious child. When he got into trouble, it was usually because Ethan, with his dirty-blonde hair and charming brown eyes, had managed to talk him into it. Ethan was an energetic, rambunctious boy, and he knew he was at his best when he had Kit watching his back. This would become very apparent to everyone as the boys grew into two of the most feared warriors in the world.

Angela, called Angel by her family, would mostly spend her childhood nagging the boys and informing on them to TK and Kari. "You have to do what I say." She was fond of saying in a bossy voice. "Because someday I will be Queen and you two will only be princesses."

"They'll be princes, honey." Kari would interject. "Not princesses."

Then Angel would huff and say. "Well, when I'm Queen I shall call them whatever I want."

She would grow into an astoundingly beautiful young woman, with brown hair that shimmered with gold, and blue eyes that sparkled in the rain. She could never stop herself from trying to interfere with Kit and Ethan's games. A tendency most vividly displayed when she got fed up with Kit capturing the hearts of all her maids and ladies, and set herself to capturing his instead. Their marriage was probably a foregone conclusion anyway, since they had always been quietly devoted to each other.

Ethan, too, would not be beyond the reach of puppy love grown up. He came home one day from a ride and was immediately smitten by the wild beauty sitting in the courtyard. Princess Dana of Motomiya was visiting with her parents, and had not seen Ethan since she was eight years old and tingling from her first kiss.

A frequent visitor to the castle was the children's cousin, Prince Mathew of Tachikawa, who was the spitting image of his father. Mat was often teased by Kit and Ethan because growing up in a house run by women, including Miyako and Ken's brainy and arrogant daughter, Jessica, had not exactly prepared him for the Ishida boys' rough style of play. But Mat just about worshiped his Uncle Takeru, and they often sat and talked underneath the oak tree next to Matt's grave. "He would have been very proud of you." TK and Mimi both told him. And it was true, Mat would grow into a noble young man, a warrior to rival or even surpass Kit and Ethan.

Angel's two best friends were always her cousin, Princess Sara of Kamiya, who was like her father in every way, except (thankfully) she had her mother's beauty, and Marie of Kido, who had all of her father's intelligence plus an unexpected amount of whimsy. Both girls could be counted on to visit at least once a summer, and to spend much of their time trying to get back at Ethan (and sometimes Kit and Mat) for the countless number of pranks to which he subjected them.

When they were older, Sara and Mat would actually decide to marry. After all, they were good friends that got along very well, and they could always make each other laugh. They thought they would save their parents and themselves a lot of unnecessary worry about the future ruling of their respective kingdoms. It was not until they actually stood together before Brother Cody that they realized they were in love.

Unlike their parents, all of the children grew up knowing they were loved. But there would still be anger and sadness, more tears and trials than they deserved. For darkness always returns eventually. And the beasts still prowled the Northern snows, watching and waiting. And there would be a time when parents and children would stand and fight together against a greater enemy than any could imagine.

But all that is a story for another day…